“To Toussaint L’Ouverture” as an Elegy

William Wordsworth’s “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” is one of the frequently discussed literary works in the historical writings on the Age of Revolution. One can easily see why: ostensibly making a hero of Toussaint Louverture, the most prominent revolutionary during the Haitian revolution, the poem is one of the few literary representations of the revolution in Western literature and one of the fewer positive ones. While the poem, at surface, expresses Wordsworth’s admiration for a black hero, critics like Cora Kaplan (in the article we read last semester) have drawn attention to complexity of the poem, questioning the heroic quality of Toussaint in it. Perhaps, the fact that Toussaint is represented as a ‘hero,’ they suggest, is less important than the way in which he is represented as such. Along this line of investigation, in this post, I shall address some of the peculiarities of Wordsworth’s poetic representation of Toussaint, by reading it as a specific instance of a literary genre—that is, as an elegy. (To explain generic characteristics of “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” is one of the aims of my final project, which deals with the issues of representation and language in the Age of Revolution. Hence, I do more than welcome any thoughts or comments on this post.)

To begin with, let me quote the whole sonnet, as it was published in 1807:

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!

Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow

Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now

Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,

O miserable Chieftain! where and when

Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou

Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:

Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,

Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind

Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;

There’s not a breathing of the common wind

That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;

Thy friends are exultations, agonies,

And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.

When one reads the poem as an elegy, one of its striking peculiarities is that the speaker laments over a person who is not yet dead but dying. Perhaps it might not seem so odd at the factual level. Wordsworth first published the poem in The Morning Post on February 2, 1803, probably having read the news that Toussaint had been imprisoned in the Fort de Joux since June, 1802, and Toussaint died two months after the poem appeared in the newspaper. Still, it seems to me quite an unusual choice that Wordsworth highlights the hero’s vulnerability by describing the ‘present’ moments of dying, rather than, for example, his past acts of heroism. It seems all the more peculiar because Wordsworth does so both by relying on the elegy tradition and appropriating it in his own way.

That is, Wordsworth uses figures and rhetoric peculiar to elegies with a twist in representing Toussaint. One of those twists is, as I said, his choice to mourn anticipated death. To mourn the death to come seems not only unusual in the elegy tradition—I do not know any precedent to it—but also is presented as unusual in the poem, especially by Wordsworth’s eccentric use of the sonnet form. The poem is a Petrarchan sonnet which consists of two quatrains (that is, two four-line sections) and two tercets (two three-line sections) and each section in the sonnet usually functions as a unit of meaning, similar to paragraphs in prose. Yet Wordsworth betrays the reader’s expectations by making it unclear in the first quatrain whether Toussaint is dead or not, whether he hears the maid’s song, or lies dead alone in the den. Wordsworth, in other words, holds back the information that the reader desires to know, in order to register effectively Toussaint’s being on the verge of death.

The fact that Wordsworth mourns for a dying person, rather than a dead one, is important because it enables him to express his paradoxical wish for Toussaint’s recovery. Because Toussaint isn’t dead yet, Wordsworth could dearly wish him not to die: “die not” (line 6); “Live, and take comfort” (line 9). Again, it seems peculiar that Wordsworth asks the dying hero not to die. Compare, for example, the injunctions in Milton’s “Lycidas,” where he requests shepherds not to grieve for his dear friend’s death: “Weep no more, woeful Shepherds, weep no more.” Similarly using imperatives, Wordsworth, however, makes an impossible demand that a dying person stop dying. Wordsworth’s wish is thus not just wishful but almost paradoxical in that he acknowledges the impossibility of his demand. In asking a question, “where and when / Wilt thou find patience?” (lines 5-6), for instance, he suggests that Toussaint will soon find patience through death, as the ‘patience’ here means something close to the “calm, self-possessed waiting” (Oxford English Dictionary 1.c.), associated with martyrdom in Luke 21:19. Wordsworth’s presentiment of Toussaint’s death, moreover, is underscored by the word that follows this rhetorical question, “Yet” (line 6). By putting the contrastive conjunction before voicing his wish for Toussaint’s recovery (“Yet die not”), Wordsworth betrays his sense that, as he has all along expected, Toussaint would not improve in the end. Indeed, the paradox in Wordsworth’s wish is stated clearly after a few lines, when he speaks to Toussaint thus: “Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,/ Live and take comfort” (lines 8).

Why, then, does Wordsworth express those futile wishes? Of course, they are expressions of his grief. In addition, I suggest that, in mourning Toussaint in such a particular way, Wordsworth attempts to make Toussaint a symbol of republican virtues or of “love, and Man’s unconquerable mind” (line 14). It is worth noting how Wordsworth reformulates his demand, “die not”: “do thou/ Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow” (lines 6-7). What Wordsworth wishes for here is not so much Toussaint’s composure as the appearance of it. In other words, his insistence on taking a cheerful posture can be taken as an expression of his wish for posterity to remember Toussaint as such, that is, as embodiment of fortitude. Every act of mourning is directed to the living, not the dead, but it is particularly true in the poem. The poem is, in other words, about how one should remember Toussaint Louverture . Even nature will remember him, rather than merely bewailing his death (as it is natural in a pastoral elegy): “There’s not a breathing of the common wind/ That will forget thee” (lines 11-12). Yet, if one question is answered at this point, a series of questions follow: why does he write an elegy so as to make Toussaint a symbol? Why does he make it explicit that he makes him an embodiment of a certain value? Why does he mourn so conspicuously?

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5 Responses to “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” as an Elegy

  1. g271187 says:

    Haram, thanks for sharing these interesting thoughts on Wordsworth’s poem! I have a somewhat different reading of the poem, in particular of the references to life and death. While you read the poem as being about Wordsworth’s impending death, which seems to be quite accurate, I’d like to suggest that the poet’s call for living concerns not so much the fate of Toussaint as an individual, but rather the fate of the cause he was defending: that of the Haitian revolutionaries. Toussaint may have been the “most unhappy Man of Men” not only because he was facing death, but also because Haiti had not yet achieved independence from France, and he was dying at the moment when the cause of revolution needed him the most. Even as he is about to die, Toussaint remains the “Chieftain”; his individual identity is closely tied to the Haitian revolution. Thus, when Wordsworth asks “where and when Wilt thou find patience?”, it would seem that he is not only talking about the solace that one finds in death but also the knowledge that the revolution has succeeded. Toussaint then should “Live, and take comfort” not so much because he will live much longer, but rather because the revolution will succeed, thanks to “Man’s unconquerable mind”.
    This alternative reading of the poem raises many complex questions. Did Wordsworth support the Haitian revolution, and did he really believe that the Haitian revolution would succeed? What was his relationship to slavery? Do we know anything about the reception of the poem, in particular, was Wordsworth criticized for depicting Toussaint as a hero, and seemingly offering his support to the Haitian revolution?

    Your post raised many other interesting questions as well. First, I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about Wordsworth’s depiction of Toussaint as a “symbol of republican virtues.” Where exactly do you see this in the poem? Moreover, do you know of other poems on Haitian revolutionary leaders written by Western poets during the Haitian revolution? I would also be curious to hear more about the relationship between poetry and politics, and in particular Romanticism and politics! It’s fascinating that the poem was published in a newspaper- and a good reminder that the printed word played a crucial role in the age of revolution.

    • Haram Lee says:

      Thanks, Geraldine, for your interesting reading and many intriguing questions! I can’t answer all of them, but a little bit of the context, I hope, might answer some of them. As I’ve mentioned, the poem was initially published in February 1803 in The Morning Post. One thing to notice is the period of publication: it was published during the last days of the Peace of Amiens, which soon ended in May 1803. And this period was when the Whigs, who originally had supported the Peace, changed their position and tried to prod the government into the war with France. Coleridge was a major propagandist who spoke for the Whigs, having regularly written polemical opitions in The Morning Post, precisely where Wordsworth published the Toussaint poem. Considering this context, many critics have viewed the poem as a kind of political propaganda, which aimed to criticize Napoleonic France for its abandoning the revolutioary cause–an aberration that the imprisonment of the hero of the Haitian revolution testified to. I do quite agree with them but think that the 1807 version is a little different. This I shall try to explain in my final paper….

  2. Jane Kamensky says:

    Hi, Haram, I too am intrigued by this provocative close reading of the Toussaint sonnet as elegy. I wonder whether there are also strains of/ against Christian allegory here: Toussaint will not “rise again,” Christlike, but rather live on as tale told, spread on “the common wind.” (Side point: I never realized that the title of Julius Scott’s highly influential 1986 dissertation on the spread of news in Afro-Caribbean communities in the age of Revolution came from this poem.) This makes me wonder what more you can say about what kind of hero Wordsworth presents here. “Chieftain” for example is quite different from general or even chief; to my ear it implies clannishness, outsider status–a word used for Scots highlanders and other doomed enemies of onrushing modernity. And what of the fallen hero’s “Powers … air, earth, and skies”? Just free associating, but I hear a mix of Prospero and Caliban, the magician and the “savage.” Do you? –Jane

    • Haram Lee says:

      Thank you for your insightful comments! I have not thought about the association with Scots highlanders and pre-modern (or anti-modern?) clans, but it is an interesting connection to think about in relation to the issues of race, nations, and modernity…. And I do hear some magical notes in the portrayal of Toussaint. To a certain degree, Wordsworth is resorting to a popular image of Toussaint in the British press, where he was often referred to as a “negro chief or king,” but I too find that there’s something more than this in Wordsworth’s description of him.

  3. Chris Albers says:

    Why are you reading this as an elegy? And if so, why are you taking the narrow definition of elegy as being a poem lamenting death, not a broader type of loss? Wordsworth is clearly referring to Toussaint’s exile and imprisonment, and lamenting those. Unless you assume Wordsworth assumes Toussaint is dying, it is not at all “peculiar” that he counsels him to live. Toussaint is to be comforted in his loss of power by the thought that “powerful allies” are still fighting for his cause of freedom. Our knowledge that Toussaint died soon after the writing of the poem can heighten the sense of loss and defeat, but it does not mean Wordsworth anticipated that event, nor does a reading of the poem require it.

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